The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 27 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, host

Listen to the audio version of this podcast.


Gonzalez: This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 27 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, part two of a two-part episode, I interview an instructional coach to learn how he helps teachers get better at teaching.

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Gonzalez: So in part one of this two parter, I interviewed Gretchen Schultek Bridgers. She is an instructional coach in North Carolina and we talked a lot about the work she does and how she does it and how she got to be doing it in the first place. And I thought it would be a good idea to get a broader perspective on instructional coaching if I interviewed another person too. And so I also interviewed Eric Sandberg who is an instructional coach in Pennsylvania. And so this is part two. If you want to hear the other part, it’s Episode 26.

And I’ll tell you, one of the things I’m learning from listening to both of them is that you don’t necessarily have to have an interest in instructional coaching to get something from this episode, because it’s not just instructional coaches who are tasked with helping teachers improve their teaching. People who are administrators have to do this. People who are mentor teachers. Every state has different kinds of teacher mentor programs. And sometimes we have informal relationships with other teachers where maybe they’re asking us for help or maybe we’re seeing that they could use some help. And so I think listening to both Gretchen and Eric, it’s really helpful to see how they approach the work and how much they value relationships. And how carefully they approach a situation where a teacher might be feeling a little bit defensive or anxious about having somebody there to point out things that they’re doing wrong. So even if you’re not interested in instructional coaching, but you’re moving toward a position where you’re going to be helping other teachers improve their work, you’re definitely going to get something from listening to this.

Before I play the interview, I just want to say thank you to those of you who have left a review on iTunes for the podcast. If you haven’t yet, but you’ve been getting something out of it, I would absolutely be so grateful if you would go over and just leave a quick review. It really helps people find the podcast. iTunes puts shows that have high—a higher amount of reviews out in front of people more. So I would love it if you would do that and thank you if you already have.

All right, let’s get started with part two of our two-part interview with instructional coaches.


Gonzalez: We are talking to Eric Sandberg. He is an instructional coach and he actually has a website called Eric has been an instructional coach in Pennsylvania for six years and on his website he actually shares a lot of really sort of useful tips for instructional coaches to sort of help them do their work better. So he seemed like a good person to talk to about this kind of work. So welcome, Eric.

Sandberg: Hi, it’s nice to be here.

Gonzalez: So if you could start by just giving an overview of the kind of work that you do as an instructional coach.

Sandberg: I think the probably best way to describe my work is in two veins. One is more in the classroom, things that I do—So I might model for a teacher an instructional strategy or co-teach with a teacher. Or sometimes providing feedback as the teacher does the teaching. And then a second sort of vein, if you will, of roles that I have outside of the classroom, whether it be facilitating meetings or PLCs, working with data, and then participating in various teams at my school, leadership teams and various roles that support the school goals. Those are probably the best ways to describe my work.

Gonzalez: So when you said my school, are you assigned to just one school?

Sandberg: I am currently assigned to one school. I have in the past been assigned, in different—in a slightly different role, I was working in actually eight schools at once, if you will. But it really never—you could really never work in all eight at once.

Gonzalez: Right.

Sandberg: But that was sort of in a previous coaching role when I really was focused on elementary science instruction. So it was a little different focusing more specifically on one subject than what I do right now which is a little broader and obviously a lot deeper when I’m working with one school.

Gonzalez: Okay, and how is it—How does it actually work? Do you—Do you sort of get assigned to work with everybody evenly or are you given specific teachers to coach because there’s been an identified need?

Sandberg: It’s a little bit of everything. I’m in a unique situation. These past two years, last year and this current year, I’m at a large K-8 school that is in sort of improvement mode where a few years ago they had one of the lowest or poorest results on state tests and so they were put into, what we call in our state, priority status. So there was a lot of things that happened and a large amount of federal and state funds came to this school. And one of the great things about that is that I’m actually a full-time coach there and there are two other full-time coaches there as well.

Gonzalez: Wow.

Sandberg: Which we are probably one of the few, few and proud schools out there to have three. A lot of schools out there are lucky to just have one full time coach let alone more than one. And a lot of schools obviously share.

Gonzalez: Right.

Sandberg: So we’ve been lucky to have really a team of coaches and also really lucky that two of our three administrators are former coaches as well, who I’ve worked with in the past both as administrators and coaches. So it’s almost really like we have five coaches, though two of them have a little more authority than the other three. In our case we get to play off of our strengths. So one of our coaches has a lot of primary elementary experience so she handles a lot of the littler—Not the little teachers, but the teachers of—the teachers of primary grades, let’s say. And then the other two of us have more of an upper elementary and a little bit of middle school experience, so we handle more of the third and up or fourth and up grades. And a little bit of subject area kind of playing together there, too.

Gonzalez: So how do you kind of strategize then if you’re working on a team? Do you meet on a weekly or a daily basis to determine where the needs are? Are there long-term plans that everybody’s working with?  

Sandberg: We definitely—We meet as a team with the administration weekly or roughly weekly because we actually work on a six-day rotation, but that’s not really important for this conversation. So we do meet weekly to discuss what direction we should go with our PLCs. We have content area PLCs, so at least once during that rotation I’ll meet with, say, the sixth grade math team, and say, that kind of meeting and kind of the focus of it has been planned out with our administration.  

Gonzalez: Okay. So I’m curious about—I guess about your path to becoming a coach. And maybe if your path doesn’t really represent what’s typical, what paths do people actually take? How does somebody become an instructional coach?

Sandberg: I think it very much differs by district and sometimes even by school. I originally became an instructional coach like you said six years or so ago through a grant that my district received. And you’ll find, you know, as you talk to a lot of coaches, a lot of time coach positions are grant funded. My current job is no different from that except this time it’s a grant from the Department of Education. A lot of time they’re grants through nonprofits, whether it’s the Gates Foundation or the General Electric Foundation or what have you.

Gonzalez: Okay and there’s—in terms of qualifications, there’s not—Are there master’s programs or certifications, or is it just being an experienced teacher to become a coach?

Sandberg: In my experience, it’s more the latter. It’s being an experienced teacher. A lot of times you’ll see a posting for an instructional coach will have, you know, “Must have five years of experience or successful classroom experience.” Many times you’ll see the requirement being involved in the school district or roles outside of your own classroom. So committee work or curriculum work or working on district assessments prior to being a coach, it may be a requirement or at least be a plus in the interview process.

Gonzalez: Okay.

Sandberg: But you mentioned, you know, a true certification in coaching, not that I know of. I know there are some programs out there that are sort of starting out. But mostly it’s like you said, being a quality classroom teacher and you’re interested in this kind of work. That’s usually the qualification.  

Gonzalez: Right. It seems like it wasn’t too long ago when I even started hearing the term instructional coach and I remember thinking, I don’t even know if I’ve ever even heard of this before. So I’m wondering if it’s kind of a recent position that’s kind of been created in maybe the last ten years or so, or if maybe it’s was just something—Maybe I just didn’t hear of it.

Sandberg: I would say that’s probably pretty accurate. Not that I represent all public school districts, but in our district I would say it’s pretty close to about ten years ago that our central administration started kind of tinkering with this idea of teachers coming out of the classroom to do, like I said, some of those roles of curriculum, assessment, working with teachers on instruction, and to varying degrees of success. I think sometimes those initial initiatives weren’t that well thought out. Sometimes people—That sometimes gives coaching a bad name in some districts because people see folks that were hand-picked out of central administration and sometimes not seen very positively. Or you hear terrible things said, like they’re spies or they’re here to get you or they’re the curriculum police or things like that. So I think as instructional coaching has grown, awareness of the best that can come out of instructional coaching has grown as well.  

Challenges of Instructional Coaching

Gonzalez: Great, well that’s actually a good segue into my next question which is about some of the challenges of being an instructional coach. What would you say some of your biggest challenges are?  

Sandberg: I mentioned earlier that I’m in kind of a unique situation, and in my case right now when the school was sort of revamped due to its priority status, the old faculty was basically given the choice to leave, and probably 90-something percent of them did, and the new administration coming in had a lot of leeway and freedom to basically interview and select the new staff or the new faculty. So about nine—Last year was really tricky because we had so many new teachers who needed a lot of support in a tough school that has a lot of issues and struggles. This year a little bit more of a mixture of a lot of folks with us for a second year, a few that are new to our district, but varying degrees of classroom experience, and then so there’s—I think one of the biggest challenges is how do you meet all these different needs? Most, if not all instructional coaches struggle with how do you meet a wide variety of needs.

So you may have thirty teachers in your school and fifteen may have great need with math practices and another twelve have some great need with some literacy practices. And then some of those people are the same people. So it can be a real challenge to juggle those first groups, those fifteen and those twelve, and meanwhile you may have someone who is in a brand new situation. May or may not be brand new to teaching, but is in first grade for the very first time and they’re struggling because there’s so much—so much of their job is new to them, whether it’s curriculum, different styles of management, technology, and the list goes on and on. This sort of—this moment that they’re in—they’re, for lack of a better word, they’re really lost. So they get a lot of attention and you have to sort of juggle all of these needs and levels of needs at the same time. It can be a real challenge.

Gonzalez: Yeah. How receptive are people to you coming in? And do you ever get any negative or defensive reactions from teachers?

Sandberg: I feel like in my current situation I have been very lucky. Like I said, it is very unique to have so many new at the same time. And I was new at this building as well, although I have done this same job at other places in my district. So I’ve been very, very lucky that I’ve seen very little resistance or apprehension. I feel that’s partly because my approach is I don’t feel like “I’m here to fix you, so you better listen.”

Gonzalez: Yeah.

Sandberg: I feel like we’re partners and I’m always looking for—I’m not going to find the things that are going wrong and trying to fix it. Let’s look at these couple of things that are really going well, and then maybe there’s just a couple of things you can discover and you can take the next move with. So I think a lot of it is approach.

But certainly in the past, I’ve had, just like anyone in their profession has had, you know, person-to-person resistance. Because it can be tricky, that’s for sure. As far as, you know, finding teachers that are resistant as far as they don’t see the reason behind a particular move that the administration might be driving. Or you know sometimes it’s—It’s part of the culture of the building to question things or to be skeptical. Or to question people and say “I’m not going to believe you until you can prove it to me that you can hang with me.” That kind of thing.

Gonzalez: So how do you—How do you handle that kind of a situation, when you get that kind of feedback?

Sandberg: I think one of the key strategies that I’ve found is that my job is not “I’m here to tell you.” My job is, “We both have some, some of the solution here. We both have—You know, if we’re assuming it’s one teacher and one coach, that we both have some level of experience that will contribute to the making the classroom work better. To helping kids learn and being more engaged with the content, with the other children in the room. I feel a lot of it is approach. And I think a big piece of it is trust. I think that teachers have to know– The teachers you work with as a coach have to know that it’s okay to not be perfect in front of the coach, because you’re not there to evaluate them. You’re not there to report back to the administration that “You better go down to room three because so and so is doing this, doing this wrong or doing that, making that mistake. Better get down there!”

Gonzalez: Now do you have to clear up that misconception for them or—How do you get them to believe that you’re not going to be just reporting on them?

Sandberg: I think, depending on the situation, especially when you’re new, you do have to be up front about that and say—You have to call it out, especially in cases where teachers have been wronged in the past by some other—And it’s not just coaches, other teachers—There’s certainly been situations where, where a special ed teacher works with a general ed teacher and they don’t handle that person-to-person trouble appropriately and one of them goes to the administration. And it makes more of a problem between them instead of fixing it. So I think you have to be up front about it. I think you have to be clear along the way about it. And then I think the proof is in your actions too. You know I think the first time you break that trust with one teacher, you’ve pretty much broken it with every teacher in the building. You know it’s a lot like the old—You know they say when you’re buying a car and the dealer wrongs you in someway you’re, how do they say it? If you’re buying a car and they do you right, you’ll tell ten people. But if you do it wrong, they’ll tell a hundred people.

Gonzalez: Yep. So a brand new instructional coach may just need to do—To put their time in and build that trust with everybody. They may not be able to expect that trust right away.

Sandberg: I think it’s building it. But also really being intentional up front and thinking about, I’m new in this job, if I was not the new instructional coach but I was the teacher—which I was likely a week ago, a month ago or a year ago—how would I want this person sitting across from me to treat me if I was still the teacher? And then, you know it can be tricky. There’s times when the administrator in the building wants the coach to, you know—I don’t want to say surveillance, but to check on someone and report back. And the coach, you know, has to kind of stand up for that, for believing in that trust piece and saying “You know, I really—It’s not really my place, and you’re welcome in every building, in every classroom, because you are the administrator.” So—

Gonzalez: …you go watch them.

Sandberg: Kind of. Part of it is that. There’s a line there that an administrator can cross. You can probably—In most districts the administrator can walk into any classroom, any time, and check out how things are going.

Gonzalez: Right.

Sandberg: But sometimes I’ve heard of and actually experienced coaches not being allowed to come into people’s classrooms. You have to be invited in. And sometimes it’s a little bit more free, that it’s the expectation that the coach will be in with you and working seamlessly. So there’s different approaches there as well, sort of from the directives of that school or that district.

Improving with Experience

Gonzalez: So in terms of—Since you’ve been doing this now for a number of years, are there things—Are there ways that you do it now that are different than when you started out? Changes you’ve made to your approach?

Sandberg: I would say for sure I feel like I’m as a coach more patient with teachers. And I am a teacher. I’m not an outsider to the profession. I feel like one of the best pieces of advice or sayings that was taught to me in my training to become an instructional coach– One of the trainers said “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I guess it’s an old you know zen saying or something like that. And I feel like sometimes that’s like when the teacher is ready, the instructional coach will appear. So sometimes it’s finding ways for teachers to become ready. Because if you’re just going in and you’re going to try and fix everything like a hammer, like you’re a hammer. You just like to break a lot of things and in some cases that might be trust. Sometimes that might be the teacher’s confidence. Sometimes that might be the positive climate in their classroom. Or it’s beliefs they have about instruction. So you’re job’s not to fix that like you’re always a hammer. Your job is to fix that with like the right tool for the right moment.  

You know it might be– There may be some misconceptions about a particular teaching style. There may be mistakes that are being made that teachers don’t feel are a mistake. Or you know maybe using a practice that’s not the best practice. It might be effective, but it might not be as effective as it could be. I think part of it is being skilled with—So we’ll go with the tool analogy, you know the tools in your toolbox as a coach help teachers come to that next step, but not just always in an enforcement mode of, you know, “I’m the hammer. I’m going to smash if you don’t fix.” So it’s to me more sophisticated with your methods as a coach. Because just like in the classroom, telling is not just—Telling is not teaching. if I just tell you, “Oh you should really do this…” That’s not teaching you in the classroom if you were the student. And it’s not really good coaching either. It’s just tell and talk. You know you have to learn about it together. You have to practice it together and you have to give feedback to each other.

Helping Teachers Reflect

Gonzalez: Yeah, have you—Have you—Do you have any sort of go-to strategies that—I’m thinking about when you really want the teacher to realize something themselves. Like for example, do you use a lot of video or something where you can kind of have that teacher discover on their own about something that may not be working or something that they may not be doing?

Sandberg: Video is a really exciting piece of instructional coaching. It’s not a tool that we’ve started using very actively in my school role now. We’ve talked about it but I feel like you have to be ready for it because it doesn’t lie. You know it’s like that—Looking in the mirror in the bathroom with the fluorescent light. There’s not—You’re not hiding anything. So I think when teachers are viewing video of their own instruction, it can be very eye opening and I guess it’s sobering in a way. And I think it’s great, a great piece for instructional coaches. But I think it’s—You have to use it at the right time, when you’ve built up the right level of trust.

And it can be used in lots of different ways. One of– One of the best ways is that the coach isn’t really part of the process. Maybe the coach sets up the camera. Tells them—Tells the teacher, “Here’s how you press record.” Record them twenty minutes. Press stop. And you can watch it and reflect on it yourself. Then they don’t feel like they’re being watched as much as they’re watching themselves.

But I’ve seen also, I’ve worked on some coaching roles outside of my school district where I’ve actually worked remotely with some teachers in another state where they were filming their instruction and then watching it and uploading it to a site. Then we would do our coaching conversation using that video and it was a really powerful, let’s say, genre of coaching if you will.

Gonzalez: Yeah, yeah. Would you, so would you say—I want to go back to something…

Sandberg: I don’t remember your original question.

Gonzalez: I was talking about whether you have certain strategies that you use in order to get to—You were talking about how you can’t just tell a teacher something. That’s why I brought up video. Is there something you do to help teachers realize maybe that something they’re doing is less than effective as opposed to just telling them this is not the way to go?

Sandberg: I think—I feel like another go-to strategy is to bring into the conversation student work, because the act of teaching’s not a show. It’s not, you know, it’s not entertainment. It’s really all about some kind of result and it might be a formative assessment at the end of the lesson. It might be the end of unit math test a week later. But I think a really big eye opener for teachers is that bringing of student work to the table. It’s interesting sometimes to hear people’s take on what their students are able to produce. But I firmly believe that if the students can’t do it on their own, then we haven’t taught them well enough. And that can be hard. It’s been hard for me in the past. You know, I’ve had certainly had times in the past where kids will turn in work and it’s not what I wanted and I’m their teacher or what I expected and they didn’t meet the goal. And I have to realize that a good deal of that’s on me. And either the teaching of it or the motivation of the students to learn it wasn’t up to, up to the standard I’m looking for.

Gonzalez: So when you’re looking at student work with the teacher and you get some stuff there that’s sort of sub-par and the teacher says “Well this kid just doesn’t want to do anything,” or “He’s not motivated,” or whatever sort of reason in terms of putting it on the student, what do you say then?

Sandberg: Well, my go-to question is: So what are we going to do about it? Because it’s not—I’ve struggled with this over the last couple of years that I feel like a lot of teachers—and I’ll put myself in there too sometimes—a lot of teachers feel like education and learning is like a buffet and if the kids don’t want to come and eat, well, that’s on them. And I feel like that’s ignoring a big piece of what teaching is about. And it’s motivation. It’s the relationship we have with our kids. And there’s so much there that—We’ve all had situations where we had a boss that we didn’t like and guess where our performance, you know—Our performance is less than it would be with a boss that we really have a great relationship with. And kids need that too. But it’s not the buffet analogy of “Here it is. You don’t want it, shame on you.” But I need to know that relationship that it’s okay to learn. Not even okay, but it’s going to be celebrated. And building that positive relationship because it could be that kids don’t trust what you’re serving. It could be that kids, you know, that it’s not presented in the right way. So I think there’s a lot to not being just a teacher as a technician, but being a teacher as building that relationship, knowing what you’re talking about, building motivation with your kids and then real, true results that last can follow.

The Pros of Being an Instructional Coach

Gonzalez: I’ve got two more questions. What is the most satisfying part of your job?

Sandberg: I would say a couple things. First, I love that my job is still about not just working with teachers, but working with kids. That I get to see kids every day. That I get to build those positive relationships, that just seeing them, even if sometimes it’s too brief, it’s a really great part of my day. That I get to see a lot of kids too because I work with a bunch of different classrooms, where some folks might only work with one or two groups of kids.

And the other thing I think makes it really satisfying is when you’re working with a teacher and you’ve got to the point where the teacher starts to try some of the strategies and techniques that you’ve been talking about to actually put them into place, which is nice. You know you feel like “Huh, we talked about that. Somebody did it.” But then the really satisfying part is when the teacher sees the impact of what you talked about. That they come back and say “I tried it and things went so much better. And then it’s like they get hooked a little bit on it. Not hooked on, you know, all the smart stuff that Eric says, but hooked on just looking for that next, you know, that next positive step. To find that one thing that could be next. Then you almost work yourself out of a job because they don’t, they might not need you in the same way.

Gonzalez: Yeah, because they start learning how to just look for that stuff themselves. Yeah.

Sandberg: And then it changes; the relationship changes a little bit. So maybe the balance tips a little bit to their side of things, but in a great way. So then you’re more in—the little voice on the side. You know, you just go, “Just remember. Don’t forget.”

Advice for Instructional Coaches

Gonzalez: So this last question, you may have already covered this: What advice would you give to somebody who’s just starting out as an instructional coach?

Sandberg: I feel like this is two really big things that are not really easy things. But to be successful in this kind of role, you need to have both. The first one is to go slow and do things well rather than to go fast and make a bunch of mistakes. You see it all the time. People want to do everything for everyone and fix everything for everyone. And by the end of day two, they can’t keep up.

So the second one is to always remember that your job as an instructional coach is to support teachers. And it’s not to be the enforcer, to be the initiative police, the change police. That you are—They shouldn’t feel that you are there to watch them. They should feel that you are there to support them and to learn with them.

Gonzalez: Wonderful. That’s, that’s great advice. Eric, thank you so much for just all these insights. It’s been really interesting to talk to you.

Sandberg: Well I thank you for your time. It’s been a great conversation.

Gonzalez: And so people can find you at and can you give us your Twitter handle too?

Sandberg: Yes, I’m also on Twitter @ecsandberg11


Gonzalez: Okay, thank you so much Eric, have a great night.

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Sandberg: Thank you, you too.

Gonzalez: For links to the resources mentioned in this episode, go to cultofpedagogy/pod and click on episode 27. While you’re there, set aside some time to explore my other resources for teachers. Thanks for listening and have a great day.

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